Thursday, 9 July 2020

Sam's One Pound Gamble


It is true. That doyen of the cheap pint, Samuel Smith of Tadcaster has decided to get out of that particular game, with prices rises all round on re-opening. Well as far as we can make out that's the case, but of course, with Sam's, the facts are as murky as a Railway Arch Pint.

So what do we know? Samuel Smith, outside London is pretty cheap for draught beer and lager. In their heartland, pints are often £2 or less.  Rumour now has it that mild and bitter will rise by a pound a pint and lager by up to £1.20.  An entry on Facebook by one of their landlords, which seems to be a re-hashed version of something sent by the brewery to managers (all Sam's pubs are managed) - justifies the price increase.  It reads roughly thus:

"We have had no choice but to raise our prices. For years Sam Smiths pricing has been way below our competitors. Our family run company have been producing excellent value in brewing since 1758. In these uncertain times and let’s face it, no one really knows what the future holds, to open up hundreds of pubs is really risky and costly. We are just raising our prices inline or below of our brewing friends. 

Please bear in mind how really low our prices we’re for years and at some point to sustain stability we have no choice but get inline with everyone. 

When I made a quick visit to the THT on Sunday, our landlord mentioned he had a Sam's manager in, who had mentioned in conversation, the price increase will be in the range I mention above.  Now I can't yet actually confirm it and equally, I have no idea how prices will or won't change in London, or indeed how much we can depend on what we read elsewhere.

Sam's pubs operate without televisions, with no music - recorded or live; no use of phones, laptops or even Kindles, as well as being liberally emblazoned by signs telling you in no uncertain terms what you can or can't do within. It probably isn't unfair to say that part of the quid pro quo for doing what you are told is low prices.  Having said all that, the actual sentiment of catching up may have some validity. Outside London, for draught products only, Sam's pubs are cheap as chips. In fact, cheaper than chips if you drink mild - but it is a bit of a gamble to pile it all on at once. Given the odd way Humphrey operates, like an East German holiday camp, he attracts a certain kind of customer.

Now if you are paying bottom dollar for your ale, you may well be minded to put up with all this, but if a price rise take your pint to broadly in line with elsewhere and you realise that five pints cost you a fiver more,  I dare say many won't.  After all, why pay £3 a pint to put up with Humphrey's lopsided world, when you can go elsewhere and won't have to?

Whichever way you look at it, this is a gamble and it signposts, the end of a unique business model, but if it backfires, it may also be the last blast of Humph's reign.

Wetherspoon's may be the likely beneficiary of any ex Sam's customers. While the Bailiwick of the opinions of another lopsided eccentric,  you can at leastphone your pals about it, while gently effing and jeffing. And you can get cask ale, which you can't in almost all the 33 Sam's pubs in my area.

Can't see it helping to re-open the many Sam's pubs which are currently closed.  You would have thought that a slow increase might have worked better, rather than a short, sharp shock.  Then again, people have short memories.


24 comments:

Curmudgeon said...

We wrote our two blogposts on this subject entirely independently, but it's interesting that we've both made the point that it *could* be seen as an overdue correction, and in some of the pubs in more prosperous locations £2 a pint was effectively giving money away to the customers. I can't see Sinclairs, for example, losing much trade.

My thoughts are here.

qq said...

Sounds like the next generation taking short-term decisions to improve the numbers ahead of a sale, under cover of Covid?

Britain Beermat said...

An interesting post...no Sam Smith's by us in South Derbyshire but....big price rises and no discernible change to policy or decor is not a vote winner!

Cooking Lager said...

These leaves only Timbo flying the flag for cheap grog.
Sad days

J Mark Dodds said...

Samuel Smith's needs to be shaken up altogether. It's built on exploitative business practise towards its employees, it's a bullying feudal closed shop.

Just saying.

Tandleman said...

Excellent as always Mudgie. I suppose though that the 2.8% beer is still very reasonable. Could do with some London info though.

Tandleman said...

Who knows? But I doubt it really.

Tandleman said...

Oh true, but be careful what you wish for.

The Flat Hat said...

"Given the odd way Humphrey operates, like an East German holiday camp"

Too progressive for Mr Humphrey, he operates as a 19th Century factory owner. Once you understand he is a 19th Century person all his actions become very clear including his reluctance to allow the council to destroy the old bridge in Tadcaster and his sinking lots (& lots) of money into sympathetic pub restoration.

Andy Cooper said...

Its always been a strange business model for pubs, a sort of pile it high and sell it cheap approach but with strings attached both for the manager and the drinker. I am going to be keeping an eye on our Sams local, the Stalag Luft Turf Tavern. which is always packed with drinkers in the front facing beer garden even on the dullest of days to gauge any discernible effect. I wont be going in, once was enough.

electricpics said...

Possibly the biggest percentage price rise any brewer has ever made?

Ted Tuppen said...

JMarkDodds - maybe Sam's should be more like other major pub companies. Oh...

retiredmartin said...

Not sure why this feels such a hammer blow, but it is definitely a setback to the unique drinking culture of the North.

As you say "If many of the other customers are deterred, much of that atmosphere will be lost, and indeed the future of the pubs themselves may be threatened."

Much as I love their pubs (and the Stout), I probably only put £15 in their coffers last year, and the hike would still leave them good value.
But their pubs in Eccles and Weaste and Sheffield weren't heaving last year and I can see this impacting viability.

Not sure about Stockport or Manchester, but Craft Union seem to offer the best value outside Spoons(£2 a 6X in Dereham), and are closer to the spirit of Sam's.

(Wrote this on Mudgie's blog. Mudgie makes the point that the Craft union pubs are a lot noisier than Sam Smiths so not likely to see a transfer of custom from the Old Boy who likes a quiet pint).

Mulldog said...

A group of around 10 of us who were fairly regular Sam Smith's visitors in several Rochdale pubs have decided we won't be going back. My own favourite tipple "Extra Stout" has gone up £1.10. We don't mind paying such prices as a one off in Manchester etc, but for regular weekday drinking in a back street pub it's far too much of a hike.

Tandleman said...

Interesting comment. Thanks. Do you think others feel like you on this?

Unknown said...

Mulldog has it right. Sam Smith's were hardly making it work at £2 a pint and their empty pubs now litter my local area. Adding £1 and more is hardly going to fix things. Humphrey needs to clear off and sell outto Marstons.

Malcolm Nicholls said...

Amber Taverns? Craft Union?

RedNev said...

There are no Sam Smith's pubs around here, and I don't particularly rate the beer, despite the low prices. I expect it has operated in a similar way to the old Threlfalls which used to have a brewery and a chain of pubs here in Merseyside. It undercut other breweries by buying cheap ingredients to keep prices down: a brewing equivalent of "never mind the quality, feel the width". Beer lovers did not think highly of it.

Humphrey, like JDW's Martin, doesn't seem to mind alienating potential and actual customers, but while my view is that a big price hike like this would be unwise, I expect Humphrey really doesn't care less, as I think this anecdote will illustrate:

When'New' Labour introduced the (frankly ridiculous) new-style music licences for pubs, Sam Smiths refused to pay for them and banned live and recorded music across its estate. In Whitby, North Yorkshire, this decision ensured that a large pub, the Plough, that had been heaving with music and song sessions in 3 separate rooms with another in the large back yard (weather permitting) during the annual Folk Week, became almost deserted while other pubs in the town were packed with drinking musicians and singers. The last time I went in during the festival, there were about half a dozen drinkers rattling around when previously there had been literally hundreds all day and all evening. It wouldn't have surprised me if the beer sales in that one pub during Folk Week could have bought music licences on the entire pub estate. Even though those licences were scrapped years ago, the ban on live music that they prompted remains.

We can laugh at the ridiculous and outdated eccentricity of Humphrey and the fact that he may be risking his own business, but I do think he has a responsibility not to jeopardise the livelihoods of his thousands of employees by his frequent, knee-jerk responses to the many things about the modern world that he seems incapable of coping with.

Unknown said...

Surely this is a nail in the coffin for Humphrey and Samuel Smith's pubs, if any other chain increased prices by 50% there would be uproar. I like SS pubs and their beers but do not like all of their outdated policies (we got told off for using the hive app on our mobile to turn our heating on before heading home!) but their already pretty empty pubs are now going to be even emptied and one by one will close down. This is a sad loss as I enjoy their beers and pubs.
SAMUEL SMITH PUBS R.I.P. SAD!

Curmudgeon said...

Last Friday I was in the Boar's Head in Stockport. It was as busy as I would have expected it to be given how quiet the town centre was in general, with several groups of customers who didn't strike me as "value drinkers". And Robinson's Unicorn in the Swan With Two Necks was £3.45. So I don't see it killing that particular pub.

andy robinson said...

Before the lockdown i was a regular drinker in my local sam smiths pub and drank the organic lager which was £3.00 a pint, which was a reasonable pint for the money it didnt have the taste of branded products. now this has now been increased to £4.20 im giving the pub a miss.
i now drintk in a pub i can use my phone,listen to music and even sing if i want to.
so im buggered if im going to pay hotel beer prices for what is basically HOME BREW

Unknown said...

I agree Andy, why pay top dollar for a beer in a pub with no music, TV's, no phones etc when you can go anywhere for pretty much the same price and have all the entertainment, in my local Sam Smith's they even threw the carol singers out !!

Curmudgeon said...

I'd happily pay a premium to drink in an environment with comfortable seats, no piped music, no TV sport and (usually) no screaming children. But I recognise I might be in something of a minority there...

DigitalDetox said...

There are 2 main selling points of these pubs for me, a non-connoisseur.

Cheap pints.
No electronic devices (though genuine e-readers and payment cards shouldn't be included in the ban, I think).

I'm surprised by the general lack of appreciation here for that last differentiator; it's genuinely refreshing and pretty unique in this world to be somewhere where people are encouraged to be social and in the moment.

I can't see how removing one of those selling points by ramping up prices to market norms is a good idea; especially if the lack of appreciation here for the luddite--love is indicative of the general opinion of its customers.